By Melinda Guerra
I begin resenting Spanish.
At first, it happens in small ways. I realize I can’t tell my mother about the Pilgrims and Indians because I don’t know the Spanish word for Pilgrims. I can’t talk about my essay on school safety because I don’t know the Spanish word for safety. To share my life in English with my family means I have to give a short definition for each word that is not already a part of our lives. I try sometimes, but most of the time I grow weary and finally sigh and mutter, “Olvidate.” Forget it.
As family lore has it, I didn’t start speaking until I was five, and when I did, it was in full sentences. I’d worried my parents for the years before that, as an introverted second child is bound to do to parents of an extraverted first-born, but I was soon enough the strong-willed and verbally skilled child they’d thought they’d wanted. It wasn’t until I began hanging out with friends from school that I started to notice some holes in my language-learning from home: namely that along the way, my parents had snipped out certain English words from sentences and replaced them with Spanish ones, and never bothered to clear that up for me or my sisters before we hung out with our friends. As my sisters and I grew up and compared the words that we were shocked to discover weren’t English (note: friends never understood our requests for a blanket or a towel, or trusted the strange word we insisted was the synonym for the clunky “term of endearment”), we laughed at the confusion it had left us and our friends with.
Our first language was Spanglish, a melding together of the languages our parents had grown up with, and a pretty easy metaphor for the strange melding our childhoods would be as we grew up brown in our mixed-but-mostly-black-church and mixed-but-mostly-white-schools. My sisters and I all still speak all three languages: Spanish to hide a story from the kids or the table next to us with the eavesdropper, English when we don’t mind being overheard, and Spanglish when one of the others can’t contain the whole story. We were raised in Spanglish, educated in English, and taught Spanish properly in high school; the blessing of being second generation Mexicans (our paternal grandparents were immigrants), is that we don’t have to choose an allegiance to one language over the other. This is a gift I don’t take lightly; I’ve never envied those who have had to leave one language to immerse themselves in the other.
Daisy Hernández’s A Cup of Water Under My Bed is a lovely, introspective, and kind book. It’s hard to be all of those things when exploring your childhood and young adult years, but Hernández pulls it off and the result is a delightful and compelling story. In the first of the book’s three sections, Hernández introduces us to her Colombian mother and Cuban father, and the melded cultural environment in which she grew up. Both of her parents brought their own religious beliefs with them to America and–like the Spanglish she too grew up with–her childhood beliefs and icons of are a patchwork quilt, this one made up of Catholicism, mysticism, candles, card readers, priests, and saints. We watch young Hernández grapple with her father’s alcoholism and at times physically violent temper, with why and how her parents left their countries of birth to come to America, and with the ways her family uses its blend of belief to hang on and try to make sense of things. We also meet her aunts who have come to America, and watch as her conversations with them shape her own sense of identity and life as a woman of color in America. This entire first section explores these themes and her life as a child of immigrants, her ambivalent feelings for Spanish, and the complicated process of discovering that you are a part of two cultures and realizing that something always gets lost in assimilation.
But at the library, I read the truth about multiple orgasms in Cosmo. I rely on a library copy of Judy Blume’s novel Forever to tell me I can have sex with a boy and not marry him. Something can happen between a broken hymen and baby showers. College and a career, of course, but mostly it will be a lot of sex. My best friend and I spend our teenage summers reading Judith Krantz novels and watching porn videos from her father’s collection. We see that women can have sex in swimming pools and hotel rooms and even on a spaceship. They can do it with different men and with each other. I observe this, analyze it, and come to my final conclusion: sex is good.
The second section is about sexuality, specifically the way in which Hernández navigates her own, and the varied and intense reactions of her family. Her aunts don’t talk to her about sex, and she–like many of us before the internet–turns to Judy Blume and others for an understanding of what sex and love are and can be, and from these she finds the freedom to make her own decisions about her romantic and sexual life. She shares the disappointment and hurt some of her family feels when they find out she’s been dating women, and the relief and repaired familial ties when she’s dating presumed-cisgender men. Anyone who’s ever disappointed family by nature of being a sexual person who makes their own decisions will relate to the plethora of emotions the author shares as she describes her own responses to her family members’ reactions.
Some of my favorite passages are when she’s talking about being with her partners and the ways they interact together. After having dated cisgender and transgender partners, she writes about a particular relationship with a transgender man whom strangers (and her family) assume is a cisgender man. Her description of both the assumptions strangers make of them and also of the way in which they fit together is a lovely snapshot of their relationship.
On the street and at the supermercado, no one suspects us. Alejandro is not trans and I’m not bi. We’re simply another assimilated Mexican American couple, shopping for Spanish olives and jabbing the stupid alarm in the air to find where we left the car in the Whole Foods parking lot. I love that he doesn’t look anything like me, but that he feels like me. He’s a prose poem; I’m a vignette. He knows what it’s like to live with both genders; I know what it’s like to love the two. Being with him, I feel at home. The story doesn’t have to make sense.
In the third and final section, she writes about money, class, jobs, and the racism she encounters as an adult in the workforce. Part of becoming an adult is getting the terrifying freedom of making financial decisions with no one to report to. The freedom can be intoxicating, and the consequences of financial mistakes, well, costly. It’s an especially difficult terrain to travel when the freedom of plastic cards come after a lifetime of conservative spending. Hernández’s drunken freedom followed by a sobering realization of consequences will sound familiar to those young enough to remember the days credit card companies were eagerly signing up young people with no credit history or employment.
The easy part is getting the job after college. The hard part is having the money to keep the job. To go out for drinks, dinner, and brunch. To pay for a subscription to the New York Times, the New Yorker, and New York magazine. To buy wine, even cheap wine, for yet another party, and clothes for it as well. The hard part is listening to middle-class, white coworkers talk about the poor and the working class, because it’s the nineties and the headline is welfare reform. The hard part is nodding numbly when they say, “Isn’t that awful?” and not telling them that Mami can’t find work right now and neither can Tia Chuchi, and Papi only has a part-time job. The hard part is pretending you know what a 401k is, and then buying a MAC lipstick, believing it will make you more comfortable about who you are and where you come from and the things you don’t have words for.
Hernández has said her book is about the ways we leave our families and communities and the ways we take them with us; her family and its impact on her is woven throughout the book, and while some of her specific experiences may be especially relevant to children and grandchildren of immigrants, many of the ways in which she both leaves and stays are coming-of-age stories any of us could tell. Her memoir is an insightful look at the life of a bisexual, first-generation Latina with a gift for storytelling. It’s also Bookish’s next read, and if you finish the book before our September meeting, please feel free to join us for the discussion. As always, email me at gplbookclub[at]gmail.com for details and to reserve your space!
A Cup of Water Under My Bed is available now at GPL.